There’s an old story about a man who was traveling by horseback on a cattle trail and sees a hand pump. A tin can is wired to this pump and contains a letter. The letter goes like this.
This pump is all right. The washer is good, but it dries out and you have to prime the pump. So under the white rock I buried a bottle of water. There’s plenty of water to prime the pump, but not if you take a drink first. Pour about a fourth of the water down the pump and let it soak the leather washer. Then pour in the rest medium fast and pump like crazy. You’ll get water. This well has never run dry. Have some faith. When you’ve pumped all the water you need, fill the bottle and put it back for the next feller who travels this path.
Perhaps you’ve heard the song version of this story, written by Billy Edd Wheeler, and sung by the Kingston Trio.
This story provides several insights into prayer.
For starters, the drama in the story boils down to a dilemma: Does the traveler trust the note or drink the water? A bird in the hand, as they say. Many people scoff at prayer, seeing it as a waste of time, a useless activity. However, God’s people see prayer as priming the pumps of their relationships with the Lord. Through prayer we draw on God’s unlimited reservoir of blessing — strength, mercy, encouragement, enlightenment and redirection.
The traveler’s decision to prime the pump would be a response to that note. In the same way, God’s people respond to his Word. Prayer doesn’t begin with our initiative; prayer is our response to what the Lord has already spoken to us, in Scripture and in other ways. We pray because we believe that our loving Heavenly Father is listening. The greatest message in the Bible is that our lives are put right with God through the death and resurrection of Jesus, sent by the Father for us. We don’t cross our fingers and hope an indifferent god will hear us. We pray in confidence to the Father of our Lord, Jesus Christ.
Desert Pete told the traveler to “pump like crazy.” St. Paul said, “Pray without ceasing.” That sounds like the same thing. Jesus told a parable about a woman who needed justice, so she kept petitioning the judge until she got it. In fact, Jesus himself was a man of prayer, constantly found praying to his heavenly Father. Jesus encouraged his disciples to be people of constant prayer. People who have to travel as part of their jobs miss their families back home. They call, text, e-mail, etc. as ways to keep the communication going while they’re away. Prayer is like that. It’s our way of communicating with the Lord until that day we return home. Prayer strengthens our relationship with him.
Finally, Desert Pete tells the traveler to “fill the bottle and put it back.” Prayer is not merely about me and God. Prayer is about all of us and God. In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus teaches us to pray in the plural; note the use of “our,” “us” and “we.” Our focus should be on others, unlike the Prayer of the Selfish Child: “Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray thee, Lord, my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray thee, Lord, my toys to break — so others can’t play with ‘em.” We rejoice when others rejoice, we hurt when others hurt and so we pray for them.
The story of Desert Pete’s letter illustrates key aspects of prayer. Prayer is an act of faith, faith in God and his goodness. Prayer is our response to God’s Word and especially the gift of grace in Christ. Prayer is the work of the church, pumping like crazy, seeking God’s help and guidance. And prayer is about the communion of saints, the community of believers, who pray for all people according to their needs.
Chris Milarch is the pastor at Emmanuel Lutheran Church in State College.